Spectrum Management: How We Got Here
The way that services in the U.S. have been allocated portions of the electromagnetic spectrum is difficult to understand by simply looking at a standard spectrum chart. In addition to being almost incomprehensibly dense, some services are allocated resources in multiple bands rather than together in a single band. There are solid and some less sold reasons why this has occurred, and to gain some insight into how it all came about, it helps to look at some of the major regulatory events that have taken place since the turn of the 20th Century. It is a story of an incremental process of regulation driven by technology, politics, and financial interests.
In the early 1900s, the only use of the electromagnetic spectrum was for radiotelegraphy for maritime communications, but this business rapidly grew throughout the world, driven primarily by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company and later by others. There was at this point no need for spectrum management or regulation but the rapid growth of radiotelegraphy and the lack of regulation made the situation like the Wild West, as Marconi brooked no competition to its preeminent position in radiotelegraphy equipment.
Marconi set up numerous shore stations at major ports throughout the world and instructed its employees not to handle traffic that originated from equipment other than its own. This worked until 1902 when a single event made governments realize that Marconi’s monopoly could no longer be tolerated. Having just ended what was apparently a pleasant visit to America, Prince Henry of Prussia sent a message to President Roosevelt thanking him for the hospitality. It never got there. A dutiful Marconi equipment operator refused to send it based on the company’s iron-clad policy.
The now highly-agitated and embarrassed prince told his brother Kaiser Wilhelm about this development and the German government quickly proposed an international conference to discuss regulating maritime communications. This first international conference resulted in a proposal to make all stations accept messages form any ship regardless of what equipment was used to send it. The cooperation evidenced in this conference lead to another one in 1906 at which the U.S. Navy effectively debunked the claim by Marconi that equipment from different manufacturers was incompatible, and all participants agreed to be “vendor neutral”. An international bureau was created in Berne, Switzerland, to house and disseminate information about all systems currently deployed and the location of wireless stations in each country. This was arbuably the first step toward creation of today’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU), to which at this early date was added the extension “Radiocommunications” (ITU-R) as it was then the only type of telecommunications available.
America played a major role in the drive toward more detailed regulations although progress in getting laws passed was sluggish. However, once again a single event led to rapid change: the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the key role that radiotelegraphy played in saving lives.
Almost immediately thereafter legislators signed a law regulating emissions characteristics and distress calls along with identifying specific frequencies for government use. Licensing was to be handled by the Secretary of Commerce and Labor. Another international conference was scheduled shortly thereafter but was delayed until 1927 by World War I.
In the intervening years, radiotelegraphy had been joined by broadcast radio, which complicated matters, and President Warren G. Harding directed then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to find a way to accommodate it. The result was a recommendation on how spectrum should be allocated, the first real attempt at spectrum management. It was nonetheless only a recommendation so no one was legally bound to uphold it, which they often did not. When a station in Chicago requested a channel and the commerce department rejected it, the station went on the air anyway.
This prompted a lawsuit by the government, which to its embarrassment, it lost. The court ruled that the government could not reject a request from a legitimate entity, which effectively meant that the government had no control over spectrum use. The timing of this decision could not have been worse, as an international conference on spectrum regulation was to take place in Washington that year.
Not surprisingly, the Radio Act of 1927 was quickly drawn up and signed into law, creating a commission with the authority to license stations, allocate frequencies dedicated to specific services, assign channels to stations, and control transmitted power. This was obviously the most comprehensive telecommunications law the country had ever enacted, and it set the pace for even further regulations.
The 1927 International Radio Conference in Washington then produced the first actual regulations for spectrum management that included allocation by type of service – fixed, mobile, broadcast, and amateur (which is all there was at the time). All countries would have the right to use these frequencies for their respective purposes. Modifications continued to be made to spectrum management policies (such as the addition of aviation) in subsequent conferences and the globe was split up into regions, which still exist today.
The burgeoning federal bureaucracy caused a proliferation of government agencies that controlled their own frequency allocations. The landmark Communications Act of 1934 solved that and went much further, creating a Federal Communications Commission that would report to Congress rather than the executive branch (a key distinction) and would oversee the entire government user community. However, the President, through the Department of Commerce, retained the responsibility for federal spectrum management, a situation that remains in place today. That is, the FCC manages spectrum use for commercial, state, and local government agencies, and the commerce department manages the spectrum for federal government agencies.
By this time (1934), nearly four decades had passed since radiotelegraphy appeared, and technology had significantly advanced and services using the spectrum had skyrocketed. Thus began the first major interference problems that today have become an issue to be reckoned with. The U.S. proposed rules that would create the International Frequency Regulation Board (IFRB) whose responsibility was to keep track of frequency assignments and make recommendations on spectrum usage based on their potential for interference both within the U.S. and internationally.
There is a very long list of other regulations regarding spectrum management changes that have been adopted since then, including the creation in 1978 of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) that has played a key role in proposing solutions to problems arising from advances in technology and introduced the concept of spectrum auctions. The ITU became a massive international regulatory force, was placed under the wing of the United Nations, and today has 193 member states and about 700 “sector” members.
From the viewpoint of spectrum management, there is hardly any resemblance to conditions of even 30 years ago. Wireless transmission is now almost exclusively digital, applications have multiplied, and any activity that can more effectively be conducted without wires either now is or soon will be “wireless-enabled”. More regulations to follow.